It's the first BIG meeting of the National Hunt season, and what better time to haul the placepot builder from its aestivation and crank it up to full throttle?
I've a couple of quiet fancies, and one horse that I've had a decent bet on, so if you're betting at Cheltenham this afternoon you might want to keep these thoughts in mind. (And I won't be offended if you don't!)
This handicap chase revolves around David Pipe's Standing Ovation. The trainer won this the last two years, and was second in 2010, all with the same horse, Swing Bill. In the same colours of the late David Johnson, after whom a race is named later on the card, it would be a most fitting result if Standing Ovation was to extend his trainer's (and owner's) excellent record in the contest.
And he has the form for the job too: coming here on a five-timer after striding from a rating of 94 to his current 127 peg. Distance and ground will be no issue for a horse that has won between three miles and three and a half miles, and on good to soft to good to firm. Class should also present no barrier, as it was a Listed handicap chase he sauntered home in last time.
If there is a chink in Standing Ovation's armour, it could be the track. Cheltenham is quite different from Exeter, scene of his debut win; and very different from Wincanton, where he's subsequently scored a hat-trick in his last three starts.
It could also be fatigue: Standing Ovation will be having his fifth race in five weeks, and that's a taxing schedule for even the most battle-hardened of athletes. Nevertheless, he could still be well handicapped, and is the one to beat.
Of his rivals, Hunter's Lodge comes into the race off a very similar prep to when third in it last year. He was outpaced and stayed on then, and there's a good chance of the same thing happening today. He's only four pounds higher, and with course and distance form of 131, he's an obvious placepot play.
Victrix Gale is an interesting contender from Ireland. Tony Martin's mare should have won last time but got an... interesting... ride from Ruby Walsh, flying from an impossible position to snatch third. Top amateur Jamie Codd gets the leg up this time, and with three mile form of 11213, she too has a squeak, although she might ideally like a bit more dig in the ground.
A - Standing Ovation, Hunter's Lodge
If the first race looks relatively straightforward - of course, it could be anything but - then the second looks hyper-competitive, as betting of 6/1 the field implies. The profile horses are Eastlake and, to a lesser degree, Havingotascoobydo.
Eastlake is consistent, having been in the first three in nine of his fourteen chase starts. The worry with him, despite that man McCoy in the boiler room, is that he's never won in a bigger field of chasers than nine runners. That could be coincidence - he won a sixteen runner novices' hurdle after all - but the hurly burly of a big field handicap chase differs broadly from the relative serenity of a big field novice chase where many of the runners have little chance, or are - dare I say it - running for a handicap mark. Still, Eastlake has his chance.
Havingotascoobydo has slipped back to an attractive mark, three pounds below his last winning perch, and he was second in this two years ago off a three pound lower mark. Ground is perfect for him, as is the trip, and he should run well at a 'working man's price'.
Consigliere is a horse I've somewhat followed off a cliff the last year, and he probably wants it softer. I'll swerve him today and no doubt he'll win! On the flip side, this stiffer test may enable Anay Turge to reverse the form of their Aintree running with last time vanquisher, Eastlake. He's been quite well backed, and has a lot in his favour this afternoon.
Renard, by contrast, is difficult to fancy, despite being just about favourite. All his best form is on softer, and he's not even made the frame in five Cheltenham starts. I massively respect Venetia Williams, but this chap looks to have an awful lot to do considering he's as short as 11/2.
A - Eastlake, Anay Turge, Havingotascoobydo
B - Tindaro, Sew On Target, Ballyadam Brook
Just four go to post for this informative novices' chase, headed by very smart hurdler, Oscar Whisky. On his hurdle form, he'd stroll home, but there are a few niggles that stop him being banker material.
Firstly, his form definitely tailed off at the end of last season. It's perfectly plausible that a hard, hard race in bottomless ground here back in January scuppered him for those subsequent runs. And it's equally plausible that he'll be back near his best after a break. But it's not a certainty.
Secondly, there's always a concern with horses that have spent so long jumping hurdles that they're not quite so 'natural' over fences. I'm not saying Oscar Whisky won't be a natural; I'm simply saying it's a concern. After all, he's had seventeen hurdle starts over the course of five years.
(I learned this lesson from watching Man Of Leisure, a career hurdler, tumble on his first two chase starts).
Against him Taquin de Seuil is a talented hurdler too, and has proven his ability to jump fences by winning a heavy ground novices' chase at Ffos Las. And therein lies the problem with this boyo: he generally needs it muddy. This will be the fastest ground he's raced on in Britain and, in his two good ground starts on the flat in France, he finished 79, in an overall profile of wins and places. I'm taking him on, plain and simple.
The one who might benefit if Oscar Whisky is less than foot perfect is The Romford Pele. All other things being equal, he shouldn't be able to live with the favourite, but he could be fitter than the jolly after a good three-quarter length second to the smart Balder Succes last time, and he was good enough to be an eleven length seventh in Champagne Fever's Champion Bumper.
He could stay on well up the hill over this extended two and a half miles and, if Taquin de Seuil does under-perform, he's the forecast play.
Although I quite like The Cockney Mackem, his win record is abominable, and it's tough to see him passing all three here, non-completions notwithstanding.
A - Oscar Whisky
C - The Romford Pele
A cracking little handicap hurdle, and one I'll be going deep in on the placepot. Whisper is the top weight, and second favourite, and has the scope to be better than these. Coming here off a break wouldn't be a worry, as the full form filter proves:
He could be making it a very good day for Dai (Walters, his owner) if doubling up after Oscar Whisky in the previous race and, whilst good ground might be ideal for him, there are plenty here to take him on.
Hold Court is an interesting contender. He's happy on the ground, in the grade and at the distance, and he's been consistent in handicap hurdles without getting his nose in front. At 20/1, he's playable.
Dai Walters' other runner, Top Gamble, is actually favourite here, but the ground has to be a huge worry for a horse that has won his two races on heavy, and has never run on anything faster than that! He was beaten first time out last year, though that may have been inexperience rather than fitness, and he's plenty short enough with a bit to prove on his first handicap start.
Thomas Crapper is one I like. He's got his ground - placed all four starts on good - and he's got course and distance form, including when winning here first time out this season last time. At 22/1 in a place, he too is playable against the top of the market.
Upswing is on the, erm, upswing, but his form has been on softer and in smaller fields. Like many of the other unexposed horses in the field, he can overcome that, but he's not a value price so to do. Not in my view anyway.
God's Own may not be value especially, either, but he's probably the right price. Easy wins either side of an unseat an a 'bogged down in soft ground' third put him in the frame here, despite a big weight.
Angles Hill, second in this last year, is also not out of it.
It's a fiendish puzzle and, in truth, beyond my capabilities. I'll be playing a range and trying to get through the placepot.
A - Whisper, Hold Court, Thomas Crapper, Angles Hill
B - God's Own, Uncle Jimmy, Kilalla Bay, Warden Hill
My main bet of the day runs here, and I've taken 2/1, which I still consider to be a fair price about the chance of Balthazar King. This is a speciality cross country race, and he's won the main event at the Cheltenham Festival before, as well as a couple of handicap chases on the main track here.
The key to him is the ground - he loves it quick - and he's got his ground today. Still progressive at nine, he's up to a mark of 150 here. However, this being a conditions race, he's very well in with most, and well in with some.
Of much more pertinence in these contests is proven alacrity for the range of obstacles barring the course, and Balthazar King has a great record in that context. Barring a 'ran out' he has won at the Festival, as I say, and was second in this last year on good to soft. He also won a cross country in France two starts back, and comes here in excellent fettle.
If there's a niggle, it's that he did get beaten in this off a similar prep last year, though I strongly suspect it was the ground against him then.
For those who want to take him on, Uncle Junior is the reigning champ, and he's back to his preferred conditions. Not many of the rest count, but Diamond Harry could be an interesting recruit to this game, after a couple of sighters over cross country tracks in France. He might want it softer though.
A - Balthazar King
A novices' handicap hurdle to close, and it's another tough race... unless the Irish raider Quick Jack swoops past them all, as he's been backed to do.
Facile winner of a handicap hurdle back in September, he's been running - and winning - on the flat since. As well as a flat win, he was second in a Premier Handicap last time on the level. There's a chance he could be better than these and, for those who want to save some pennies, you can bank on him in the placepot and lay him cheaply for a place.
Against him, obvious contenders are Rosie Probert, Edmaaj and Vibrato Valtat.
Rosie has least to reveal, but she also has the most in the book. It's probable something will improve past her, but 8/1 seems fair enough to me.
Edmaaj has yet to win over hurdles but his opening mark of 105 is clearly workable, and connections are adept at running on past beaten horses to secure a strong 'going in position' for handicaps.
Vibrato Valtat represents the once unstoppable Paul Nicholls, rumours of whose demise are surely a little overblown. VV is having a first handicap start too but a mark of 121 has less wriggle room than Edmaaj's 105. Clearly, though, there's more in the book with this character, and he might still have a bit extra to offer.
A - Quick Jack
B - Rosie Probert, Edmaaj, Vibrato Valtat